A History of Non-water based Fire Extinguishment
July 8th, 2015
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While pressurized water extinguishment has been in use since the 18th century, chemical-based extinguishers have been around for less than two hundred years.
Methyl bromide, a chemical extinguisher once widely used in Europe, was less harmful than carbon tetrachloride, but still required respirators to protect from choking and poisoning.
Originally created to save lives, carbon tetrachloride was killing those who came into contact with it, rendering it useless for maintaining the public safety. In response, various other chemicals, mainly chloroflurocarbons, (or CFCs as we now know them) were created to replace deadly carbon tetrachloride to varying degrees of success. Compounds such as bromochloromethane (Halon 1011), methyl bromide, and Bromochlorodifluoromethane (Halon 1211) were found to cause less damage to the body and were ushered in as replacements worldwide. Though the venerable carbon dioxide extinguisher would be invented at this time, its use was limited to residential and light commercial usage; the industries relied on the power of chemical fire extinguishment. Various implementations of potassium compounds, along with sulfates were created as dry powder solutions that could easily be recharged.
As scientific understanding of these new chemical extinguishers expanded, their impacts were soon discovered. The new extinguishers were not as harmful to human health as their predecessors; they were toxic to the Earth's atmosphere, depleting the planet's supply of UV-shielding ozone and increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere. Due to these recent discoveries, CFCs were scheduled for discontinuation and later banned under the Montreal Protocol treaty ratified by the members of the United Nations in 1987. Fire extinguisher use retreated to dependence on dry powder propelled by carbon dioxide gas, the most common type of fire extinguisher currently in use today.
Aerosol technology, invented in 1987, uses a thermal means of ignition to disperse micron-sized particles of potassium to inhibit the chemical reaction of fire and to absorb its heat.
In the continuing and constantly evolving capacity to keep ourselves safe and free from harm, fire extinguishment remains a vital cornerstone of municipal and personal protection. It has only been recently (within the last 50 years) that fire extinguishment itself has become safe for people and use in populated areas. While the mechanisms that act upon the fire tetrahedron remain the same, the methods of doing so have changed in response to human health and welfare and our environment.
The effect that fire extinguishers have had on society is understated; the introduction of the first potassium carbonate tanks in the 1820s gave places without ready sources of sand, dirt, or water, fresh or salinated, the means to extinguish fires in places otherwise succeptible to flames. The matter of a successful propellant was a difficult point of contention throughout the 19th century. Solutions ranging from sulfuric acid contained within glass vials to be broken when deployed to leaden stoppers that would be uncorked when needed. Compared with the need to pump vast amounts of water or carry great amounts of earth, fire extinguishers remained a source of utmost importance to the public need. In 1839, one chemical would redefine all previous methods of fire extinguishment to that point: carbon tetrachloride.
Unlike anything before it, carbon tetrachloride, or CTC, acts upon the chemical chain reaction of fire, rendering the flames of any fuel source inert, without the conductivity of water or the corrosiveness of potassium. Fire extinguishers became an essential and vital tool for all people, and safeguarded the lives of innumerable people during its common use. However, as people grew used to using CTC in all aspects of life, the side effects of using this miracle suppressant began to come to light: carbon tetrachloride, as was discovered, was the most potent of all poisons to the human liver, causing total fulminant hepatic necrosis with as little as two grams of the substance per kilogram of mass.
Bromochloromethane, or Halon 1011, was an extremely popular type of chemical extinguisher in the United States until its ozone-depleting properties were discovered. It was
mentioned by name at Montreal Protocol meetings in 1987.
Since then, various advances have been made in the industry of fire science, one of which has the capacity to unite the fire extinguishment potential of chlorofluorocarbons without danger to health, the environment, or to goods: Condensed aerosol. Invented around the same time as the Montreal Protocol, the process of aerosolization uses the basic principles of both the earliest and the latest in fire science advantaces: using potassium as the primary compound, micron-sized particles inhibit the chemical reaction of fire, suppressing flames and reducing temperature without the hazards previously caused by Halon breakdown. In other words, aerosolized potassium is capable of effectively fighting fire without the risk of hydrogen fluoride or phosgene gas. It is this technology we utilize in our generators at Flame Guard USA.
In addition, a new organic compound which is both soluable in water, easily filtered, and has no health risks is now being utilized in our brand new X-TINGUISH non-pressurized fire extinguishers. In comparison to carbon dioxide-based extinguishers, the X-TINGUISH is capable of fighting fires where pressurized canisters can pose a risk, including pressurized compartments in airplanes and submarines, as well as at high altitudes. The X-TINGUISH also guarantees a steady stream of fire extinguishment at all times while never losing its ability to extinguish by loss of pressurization due to its patented elastomer force element. This element, much like a balloon, is always attempting to return to its original, deflated state; the potential energy used in extinguishment is the heart of the X-TINGUISH.
We at Flame Guard USA pride ourselves in bringing innovation to fire suppression; as the forerunners of fire science worked tirelessly to innovate their field, we too want to change the field for the better. Over the lasty fifty years, the tools of fire extinguishment have changed dramatically: in another fifty, the red metal fire extinguisher we know today may be the museum piece of tomorrow.